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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Here's Anthony Burgess writing about J. G. Ballard, apocalypse, and the nature of science fiction in his evocative introduction to the 1978 edition of The Best Short Stories of J. G. Ballard. Naturally I pretty strongly agree with what Burgess has to say both about the importance of science fiction in the culture and about the centrality of the apocalyptic in science fiction—check my dissertation for more on this topic, expected completion date August 2017—and I find it world-historically unfortunate that Ballard's "restless[ness] to try new things" ultimately drove him (mostly) away from s.f.

The 21st century, after all, is already looking a lot like Ballard.

The first thing to say about J. G. Ballard is not that he is among our finest writers of science fiction but that he is among our finest writers of fiction tout court period. Ballard himself might retort that, granted the first claim, the second is redundant, since the only important fiction being produced today is science fiction (or the fiction of the untrammeled imagination, or of hypothesis, or of the metaphysical pushing to the limit of a scientific datum: unsatisfactory as it is, we always end up with science fiction). I understand that the only living writers Ballard really admires are Isaac Asimov and William Burroughs. This can be interpreted negatively as a rejection of the kind of fiction that pretends there has been no revolution in thought and sensibility since, say, 1945. And this, alas, means the greater part of contemporary fiction, which remains thematically and stylistically torpid, limiting itself, as to subject matter, to what can be observed and inferred from observation and, as to language, what might be regarded by George Eliot as a little advanced but, on the whole, perfectly intelligible. Ballard considers that the kind of limitation most contemporary fiction accepts is immortal, a shameful consequence of the rise of the bourgeois novel. Language exists less to record the actual than to liberate the imagination. To go forward, as Ballard does, is also to go back—scientific apocalypse and pre-scientific myth meet in the same creative region, where the great bourgeois novelists of tradition would not feel at home.

Ballard is a writer who accepts thematic limitations, but they are his own. His aesthetic instinct tells him that the task of the scientific fiction writer is not primarily to surprise or shock with bizarre inventions but, as with all fiction writers, to present human beings in incredible, if extreme, situations and to imagine their reactions. Ballard's characters are creatures of the earth, not from outer space. Why devise fanciful new planets when we have our own planet, on which strange things are already happening, on which the ultimate strange happening is linked to present actualities or latencies by cause and effect? There is nothing in the evolutionary theory that denies living things that ability to develop leaden carapaces as a protection against nuclear fallout. In time, the demographic explosion will bring about not only fantastic living-space regulations but a habit of mind that sees a broom closet as a desirable residence. Man will suck up oxygen from the oceans to aerate habitats in orbit, the Atlantic will be diminished to a salt pool, and in the pool will be the final fish of the world, to be battered to death by vicious boys. A new kind of man evolves, enslaved by engines of subliminal persuasion to ever-increasing consumption. Our response to Ballard's visions is two-fold: we reject this impossible world; we recognize that it is all too possible. The mediator between that world and this is a credible human being in a classic situation—tragical-stoical: he fights change on our behalf, but cannot win. Faulkner, in "The Overloaded Man," comes closest to victory by devising an epistemological trick—reducing the objects of the detestable world to sense-data, turning the sense-data to ideas, then killing the ideas by killing himself.

It would be too easy to call Ballard a prophet of doom. It is not the fiction writer's job to moralize about Man the Overreacher, in the manner of the old Faust plays. He lays down a premise and pursues a syllogism. If we do this, then that inevitably follows: choice remains free. We associates prophecies of impending damnation, anyway, with the kind of mentality that rejects all technological progress: once admit the acoustic phonograph and the internal combustion engine and you are lost. Both H. G. Wells and Aldous Huxley built their utopias (eutopias, dystopis) on unassailable scientific knowledge. Ballard's own authority in various specialist fields seems, to this non-scientist, to be very considerable: I never see evidence of a false step in reasoning or a hypothesis untenable to an athletic enough imagination. The intellectual content of many of the stories is too stimulating for depression and so, one might add, is the unfailing grace and energy of the writing.

In my view, two of the most beautiful stories of the world canon of short fiction are to be found in this selection. They are not, in the strictest sense, science fiction stories: their premises are acceptable only in terms of storytelling as ancient as those of Homer. In "The Drowned Giant" the corpse of a colossus of classic perfection of form is washed up on the beach. Children climb into the ears and nostrils; scientists inspect it; eventually the big commercial scavengers cart it off in fragments. The idea, perhaps, is nothing, but the skill lies in the exactness of the observation and the total credibility of the imagined human response to the presence of a drowned giant. Swift, in Gulliver, evaded too many physical problems, concerned as he was with a politico-satirical intention. Ballard evades nothing except the easy moral: to say that his story means this or that is to diminish it. In "The Garden of Time" a doomed aristocrat, aptly named Axel, plucks crystalline lowers whose magic holds off for a while the advancing hordes that will destroy his castle and the civilized order it symbolizes. In an older kind of fairy story, the magic of the flowers would be potent but unspecified, vaguely apotropaic. In Ballard the flowers drug time into a brief trance—specific, and if one is a little off one's guard, almost rationally acceptable. The rhythms of poignancy which animate both stories are masterly; Ballard is a moving writer.

There are three short pieces at the end of this selection which show Ballard moving in a new direction. His novel Crash evinces a fascination with the erotic aspects of violent death, or the thanatotic elements in Eros. These little sketches, highly original in form as well as content (though Burroughs seems to be somewhere underneath) play grim love-death games with public, or pubic, figures. They will serve as a reminder that Ballard, master of traditional narrative styles, is restless to try new things. Through him only is science fiction likely to make a formal and stylistic breakthrough of the kind achieved by Joyce, for whom Vico's La Scienza Nuova was new science enough. That Ballard is already important literature this selection will leave you in no doubt.

Anthony Burgess
Monaco 1978